I heard a comment the other day whilst we were visiting the dentist that made me smile. My eldest daughter has a plate and was there for her regular checkup. The younger two children were with me in the waiting room playing happily with a bunch of mismatched toys that the dentist had in a box. The random dinosaurs, army men and astronauts with missing limbs combined with the ill-fitting lego pieces didn’t seem to deter them from the imaginary world they then created in the waiting room.
The dentist appeared with Rebecca to explain the next steps, only to be interrupted by my littlest daughter asking the dentist if he could “please move over”. Her armless army man was attempting to climb the reception desk and the dentist was standing in the way. He looked down at her and then at my son and commented that it is so refreshing to see children playing in his waiting room rather than stuck in front of a phone or tablet or some other electronic device. He had forgotten what it was like to watch children ‘playing’.
I had never really thought about it before. But it made me smile to hear someone else mention something that seems pretty normal for my three children – the art of playing.
Before I had gone out that day, I had been pretty organised (I don’t always get that right). I had a doctors appointment first and then we were heading to the dentist after that. I packed water, snacks, pencil crayons, and paper. The children brought marbles (the latest craze), various stuffed animals and books. Whilst I was in the doctor’s rooms, they played beautifully in reception whilst waiting for me. When I came out, the receptionist praised me and them saying, “you have great kids, they certainly know how to keep themselves occupied.” It was a proud moment as a mum and it is always nice as a parent to have it reaffirmed every now and again that I am doing something right.
I had never really thought about how my children play before, they just played. Maybe it is partly because my children are at a Waldorf School here in South Africa that I take this for granted. At their school the focus is on experiential and creative learning and they learn to sew, knit, crochet, work with wood, sing, play the recorder, and draw every textbook as part of the curriculum as well as read, write, do maths, geography, history etc. Technology, in the form of computers, is not used until High School (age 14) and the use of media, phones, and computer games are frowned upon before that time. And maybe that’s a good thing.
At home and at school, the children are encouraged to use their imagination. How many parents hear the phrase “Mum, I’m bored!” from their children and race to find a solution? I used to give suggestions of things to do to relieve the problem of boredom, racing through the myriad of toys they have in their rooms and still coming up blank. Then, I attended a coffee morning talk at the school where they were discussing how children play in Kindergarten and what they learn from playing. At this, I learned that it is okay for my children to be bored. In fact, it is healthy for them to be bored. The reason being that from boredom comes great creativity.
So I decided to experiment with this idea and I have been astounded by the playing that has come from their ‘boredom’.
One day, my son came to tell me that he was “really bored”. “That’s wonderful”, I replied. “Be bored, see what comes out of that!” He looked at me as if I had lost the plot and wandered off in the direction of his bedroom. 10 minutes later he emerged wearing what looked like every piece of clothing he owned plus gloves, hat and scarf over a warm jacket. I have to point out that we live in Durban which has a sub tropical climate and even in Autumn/Winter, we have hot sunny days. I asked him casually where he was going. He replied, “I’m off to the North Pole!” “Oh”, I replied. “Aren’t you going to be a bit hot outside with all those clothes on.” Again, he looked at me as if I had lost the plot and said incredulously, “No mum, it’s freezing in the North Pole!”
When children are allowed to develop their imaginations, it is amazing to see the freedom that comes from it. No longer restricted by certain toys or limitations of games in electronic media, they are free to explore the world around them and it is beautiful and fun to watch. Nature offers children a unique experience that modern electronics, as technologically advanced as they are, simply cannot. Technology removes the need for imagination. Playing with sticks and rocks and climbing trees are all part of the daily outdoor play. If it ever happens to be raining, they make forts out of the sofa or the bunk bed. Never a dull moment. Too often as parents we want to run around ‘facilitating’ play. That is fine when they are really little, but as they get older, I don’t feel the need to be there watching everything and helping them to find something to do to occupy their time.
I read an interesting article called “Children in Nature: The Benefits of Outdoor Play” by Tyler Boyce, which I found on Newchurch.org. As well as the obvious health benefits, he cited many other reasons why our children and us as adults benefit from outdoor play, such as:
Reduction in Vitamin D deficiency
Reduction in Obesity in children
Prevention of myopia or short-sightedness
Reduction in the family carbon footprint by lowering electrical usage
Reduction in electricity bills
Reduction in emotional, social and concentration issues
Reduction in mental stress through laughter
So not just the physical benefits, but emotional, financial and psychological benefits come with outdoor play.
Playing outdoors has a huge educational aspect also. Belac Shep mentions in the same article that “Playing outside teaches a child about nature and the environment; how to play, share, and get along with other children; how to be adventurous and take appropriate risks; how to use reason and logic; and how to be resourceful and use their imagination.” (Ezine Articles)
So the art of playing has a key role to play in the lives of our children but as parents, it is sometimes too easy to put our children in front of the TV or hand them a game to play on an iPad or iPhone as a way to ‘keep them quiet’ whilst we get something else more important done. I have been guilty of this all too often, but have had a few instances where allowing my eldest to google cute tigers brought up images of tigers badly treated in remote parts of the world. A good friend of mine once said something very true, “Once seen, it cannot be unseen.” I think of this as I consider what movies I allow our children to watch, games to play on my iPad or whether I allow them to look up something on the computer.
We have now turned to a very old set of encylopedia’s in my office. Probably terribly out of date but it doesn’t deter us. Recently the children were discussing Leonardo Da Vinci and wanted to know more about the kinds of things he invented. I suggested that we look it up in the encyclopedia. We had so much fun looking at Leonardo Da Vinci, which lead us to other famous artists like Raphael, Michaelangelo. The children know that they are welcome to go look in the encylopedia whenever they want to know more. And I as a parent, am not worried about any other images or inappropriate text they might encounter when I am not there.
I love that my children love books and our bi-monthly trip to the public library to take out 10 books each is the highlight. I often point out that they don’t need to take out 10 books, but why take out 5 when you are allowed to take 10! We have explored various areas of the library and find more and more interesting books that suit their varying tastes each time.
This is the way I was brought up; Trips to the public library, playing outdoors in the fresh air (even in the cold Scottish winter), as well as car journeys where we sang songs, played endless games of ‘I Spy’ or ‘Animal, Vegetable or Mineral’, talked, slept or just looked out the window. We didn’t need a phone, laptop or tablet or anything else to entertain us. Have we lost this now with the new generation of electronic wizards? Do we need to keep up with technology that changes faster than I change my bed sheets? Why do we put so much pressure on our children from such a young age when all they really should be doing is playing?
We forget how much they can learn from the art of playing each day, yet we often forget to give them the time to do it. I have friends who have after school activities every day for their children and wonder why their children are irritable and restless. A family member had a child being treated for anxiety and stress at the age of 11 because the child never had any down time from school, homework and extra-mural activities, but the parents still wondered why.
Modern society seems to strip our children of their childhood innocence so early in life by throwing them into academics early and dumping them into an adult world of stress. Sometimes we just need to take a step back and re-prioritise and allow our children time to be children for as long as possible.
Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.” (Matthew 19:14)
Allow them their innocence, allow them to discover the art of playing for as long as possible. They grow up so quickly as it is – I know that I want to keep them as innocent and happy for as long as possible. It is difficult at times with busy work schedules and demands on our time as parents, but it is definitely worth the effort in the long run. It is challenging to not turn to electronic devices to fill the gaps, or keep children quiet whilst we get something else done. I am certainly guilty of that at times, but I think balance is important.
I desperately do not want technology to take over our children’s lives, but how do we get the correct balance? How do we ensure that our children discover the art of playing and retain that for many more years to come through everything they do?